Is it worth it to get a PhD? It seems really scary.
October 15, 2010 10:57 PM   Subscribe

What is getting a PhD really like? Is it worth it? I want to be a researcher in psychology, sexuality, and gender.

I've been reading around the internet and I seem to be finding many horror stories about grad school. I'm a junior at a rather prestigious university, this probably isn't enough to do real research, right? Research is my absolute favorite thing but I don't want to be an academic my whole life.

Is the money, strain on relationships, stress, whatever else worth it? Does anyone actually ENJOY grad school? Or should I just run with my BA or BS?

Really the only career I'm really passionate about is a career in research.

Thanks guys.
posted by tweedle to Education (48 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
Really the only career I'm really passionate about is a career in research.

You're barely in your 20s, so you don't actually know this, no matter how convinced you are right now.
posted by liketitanic at 10:59 PM on October 15, 2010 [5 favorites]


What do you imagine a career in research would involve? Talk to your professors and grad student TAs (in the sub-specialty you want to research in) about this to see if your expectations are accurate.

You can also talk to them about ways to get involved with research now - surely there are some research projects that could use undergrads as helpers in one way or another, during the school year or over the summer. Do they have REUs (research experiences for undergrads) in your field? Find out what it would take to apply.

Grad school experiences can be really hard, but so can a lot of life experiences. I think the grad school thing gets talked about a lot because bright students are encouraged to go into it, and it sounds like it should be great, but it turns out to be hard and miserable in ways people don't expect.

The other thing to keep in mind when seeking advice is: grad school and academic life (and the job market especially) varies a LOT from field to field. So you really need to get advice from people who are in the field you're thinking about. Advice from people in for example history departments is not going to be as relevant because the difficulties of people in humanities departments are quite different from the difficulties of people in social science departments.


The general advice is: You should only get a PhD if it is a requirement for a job you want. You shouldn't get one just because you like studying, or like being in school, or want to get smarter in a kind of generalized way, or because it's prestigious and you're not sure what to do next.

You should only get one if you are fully funded (that is, if the place you're getting your PhD will pay your tuition for you and will pay your a living stipend on top of that). So you'll want to have a good application - good GPA, good letters of reference, good research experience, this depends on the field so ask your professors in psych about what you should be doing.

For a PhD it makes a big difference where you go to school, because the specific professors you work with will have a huge influence over what subjects you can work on, and their prestige will be very important for your ability to get a job later. So you'll want to start looking at who (what professors) is doing the kinds of research you like. Find out where those people teach. Look into those grad programs. Look into whatever ratings of programs there are for your subfield and see what their faculty are working on.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:16 PM on October 15, 2010 [7 favorites]


"...you don't actually know this, no matter how convinced you are right now."

This.

"...bright students are encouraged to go into it, and it sounds like it should be great, but it turns out to be hard and miserable in ways people don't expect."

And this.

I'm memailing you.
posted by ootandaboot at 11:28 PM on October 15, 2010


It might help if you could say something about what kind of research you are thinking of. You mentioned in previous questions that you have enjoyed reading the results of marketing-research studies; is that the kind of thing you have in mind? Can you name one or two specific studies that are the kind of thing you liked?

And it sounds as if you do not imagine being a professor. So you are thinking of getting a PhD in order to do research for whom? Private companies? The government? If you are thinking you want to work at a market research firm, you should look at the websites of some of those places and see what staff they list. What qualifications do the people there have? (If you can talk to a professor in psych or in the business department or whatever, they may be able to help you figure out whether a PhD is needed for the kinds of jobs you're thinking about.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:29 PM on October 15, 2010


I did grad school. I liked it. I know a bunch of people who didn't, though.

Now, I'm a postdoc. I'm finishing up my first one, and applying for more. I've got a great background and more or less as much support as one could hope for, and yet I don't see a light anywhere near the end of the tunnel as far as being a prof goes.

(I'm not your field, but a good friend of mine is developmental psych, and despite having at least one Nature paper and fabulous credentails otherwise, she still doesn't have a tenure track job. Postdocs are becoming common in psych, and they're getting longer.)

Nobody told me this multiple-postdocs-forever thing was possible when I was an undergrad. Partially because every prof I spoke with.. well, was a prof. (Partially because I was stubborn as all heck and might not have listened anyhow).

You should be sure to speak with people in your field who are not now academics. This can be tough, because as an undergrad your easy resource is profs-- but they should not be your only resource. Ask your department to put you in touch with alums, maybe even some of their grad alums. Talk to people, and listen as best you can.

And whatever you do, don't go into debt for it.
posted by nat at 11:34 PM on October 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


If you've never worked in research before, I strongly suggest you try to get involved in it now while you're still an undergraduate. The type, amount, and level of work you are assigned to do will vary from professor/lab, but it will give you real experience. Plus, it will give you an insight as to what your life will be like if you choose to pursue a PhD.

I tried out research while I was an undergrad, and after several semesters I decided it wasn't for me. I'm glad I figured that out before I applied to grad school for something I didn't love.
posted by elerina at 11:41 PM on October 15, 2010


If you want to be active in formal research then increasingly getting your PhD is becoming essential in academia. I think there will be routes in other areas where this is less the case.

The PhD experience will be very different for different people, the fields and disciplines in which they work, the country in which they study and various other factors.

Different people: What kind of student you are. Some students like to be spoon fed, some students like a good amount of direction, some students are capable of working well independently and can take in supervisory input to colour their work and use as a spring board. these are the kind of student that I pray for as a PhD supervisor. They do not have to simply follow instructions for what to do, they can fight their intellectual corner but they are not convinced as to their genius and will not simply pursue a path to their exclusion of all input. This leads us to the other extreme from the spoon-fed, those who are convinced of their ability to write a thesis so good that it will change the world. Now I'm not saying that its impossible to write a thesis that is that good. But I am saying it doesn't happen very often. This in many ways can be the most dangerous in terms of completion of the thesis, even spoon-fed students can be led to a place where they are effectively forced to be intellectually rigorous and perhaps complete a submittable thesis. The student may not listen, may ignore input, may neglect to seek out proper supervision and may continually 'enhance' their work over long years without ever getting to where they need to be to earn their doctorate. All of these students wil have better or worse chances to get through based on the quality and the qualities of their supervisor, more on this later.

it is improtant to be honest with yourself about what kind of student you typically are going in, clearly we would all like to believe we are in the category of being intellectually open but willing to fight for our ideas. But not all students are.

There will be other personal factors which impact. Your ability to work under stress is one, Your ability to carry out repetitive or boring but necessary work without getting too sidetracked is another. And at times it will be repetitive and dull whichever topic you focus on, because that is the nature of some key elements of research. There will also be times whe you think you will never finish or that just before you do someone more brilliant than you will publish something much better on much the same topic. you need to be able to work through this.

Discipline: A science PhD will make different calls on you than a social science PhD, There will be different goals, different working environments and different attitudes to what constitutes the learning process. This will also vary between universities, faculties and departments. Science PhDs will tend to be more led by a single theme spelled out before you start and with you learning to become technically proficient while making some intellectual input. Social science PhDs are more likely to let you move around a little in terms of focus though this is not always the case.

Country: UK universities typically require only a minimum of 2 years 9 months for completion of work leading to a PhD, less if you have a relevant masters degree. They are increasingly trending towards kicking out students who fail to complete at the end of 4 years. This is at the extreme end of the rapid completion. PhDs elsewhere may typically take 6-7 years (US, Scandinavia, etc) which has implications in terms of factors like getting bored, staying focussed, but which will also have implications for what is expected of you in terms of the local educational culture: teaching, submission of articles, lousy pay for shorter or longer times, etc. Having heard yesterday that my own country is about to massively reduce financial support for the higher educational sector I would also advise you get some idea of how things look in the wider political context of funding, cultural value of your local HE sector and the potential for a career within it.

Other factors: Your supervisor (this may be called something else depending on where you live). This is one of the single most important factors in the quality of your postgraduate study. Some will want a lab monkey, some will want a paper producing machine to up their publication rate, some will be very supportive of you as an individual and take an interest in your personal welfare (and even personal life if they worry about your happiness), some will be very hands off, some will micro-manage (and this is one of the reasons you need to be honest about what kind of student you are, because a spoonfeeder and a hands-off supervisor is a particularly bad fit, and some other combos), some will allow you to walk down blind alleys and then leave you high and dry (to mix my metaphors horribly - but as an e.g. a friend of mine was allowed to do 4 years on a topic by a supervisor who then refused to sign off on the work, and she was later told he never signed off on a stats based thesis). It is difficult to find out exactly what a supervisor will be like before you sign up, about the best you can do is to try to talk to their previous or current students about their own experiences, and see if you can find out the completion rates for their students (though this will tend to be useful only for established academics who have been research active for a decade).

While you are with the ciurrent students try to also get some idea of what the whole work vibe is like, is there a social life, do the students hang out together, you are looking to find otu whether there will be potential support network available and what your working environment will be like. Because 3 years in, your wife/husband won't understand you and these are the only people who will, and you might need some understanding.

There will be plenty of other things, but this is what jumps out at me as the important stuff.

Finally, re liketitanic, it is possible to be passionate about research in your twenties, but to be true you have to have a good understanding of what research really means, including all the dull repetitive bits. Try and find out by seeing if you can get involved in smaller research projects as an UG, perhaps over the summer. Let some of your professors know you have an interest and that you could be available for work. If you seem reliable and capable you might be able to get experience there.
posted by biffa at 11:56 PM on October 15, 2010 [8 favorites]


Tweedle, you are a junior in college. You don't know what research is. You are just doing the tasks that someone asks you to do, the person who has the money to pay your salary. You've never really done research, just acknowledge it.

At the same time, I really don't mean to dismiss your passion for it – I love doing research, and that's the career I've chosen for the next couple of years (but certainly not for the rest of my life). I'm really looking forward to graduate school, but I have a significant other who takes care of my living expenses. Do you think you could handle extended periods of not being able to buy a new pair of shoes, or being able to get a haircut every six weeks? Seriously, it doesn't sound like it's a big deal, but you'll be poor. As in, government's definition of "poor".

I'm a research associate with just over a year of post-undergraduate experience in the biosciences, and I make way more than the post-docs at my institution. Can you afford to/mentally deal with that?

You are a woman, and a lot more factors than just "should I get a PhD or not" come into play if you are a resident of the United States. Do you want to have children? Do you have a problem with having the phrase "geriatric mother" (past age 28/PhD) written on your pregnancy chart?

To be honest, the fact that you're asking this question makes me think that you don't rally know what you want to be "when you grow up". That's okay. I don't quite know yet either.
posted by halogen at 12:20 AM on October 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


By "you don't know what research is" I meant you don't know what it's like to choose your research area and tailor your grant application toward whatever is in right now. You've never hand to fund your own salary, and that tends to take the fun out things.
posted by halogen at 12:24 AM on October 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


It might help if you could say something about what kind of research you are thinking of. You mentioned in previous questions that you have enjoyed reading the results of marketing-research studies; is that the kind of thing you have in mind? Can you name one or two specific studies that are the kind of thing you liked?

That was a while ago. I was trying to figure out how to work research + career + as little effort as possible into one.

Marketing research might be a good career for me just because I think I would enjoy analyzing data, making surveys, etc., but really I am getting increasingly passionate about sexuality (basically anything the Kinsey institute has published, a lot of stuff some professors at my school have published, and a lot of other stuff I find when doing lit searches) and biopsychology. Specifically both together.

And just to clarify I am currently getting research experience but I am wondering if it is possible for me to work as a researcher for the NIH or someone like that with just a BA or a BS (I have a feeling no). I have questions and I want answers. I think I can find those answers, I think humanity will be better for finding those answers. I think lit searches are fun. I think reading is fun. I'm a bit of a workaholic. Part of me loves misery, too.

I posted this question mostly because it seems like everyone who talks about grad school talks about how terrible it is and I don't really wanna have 5 terrible years for naught, if it is really absolutely no fun, if I really won't learn anything, if I really can't go anywhere I want with it.
posted by tweedle at 1:14 AM on October 16, 2010


Is life possible with just a BA/BS, doing research? Yes. I'm lucky, making close to 40,000USD doing something I love to do, one year after undergrad. I got offered significantly more working for industry (as opposed to non-profit) upon graduation, but I had different priorities. Is "close to $40,000" good enough for you? I'm lucky enough to have a boss who listens to my opinion as far as which direction our research is about to take – and working in an outstandingly "rich" lab – but as far I as understand that's exceptionally lucky for competent research techs, and while a grant is a grant, it's typically someone else's decision as to how that money will be spent.

Still drunk.
posted by halogen at 1:25 AM on October 16, 2010


Our funding is entirely NIH.
posted by halogen at 1:26 AM on October 16, 2010


Psych is "close enough to science" that you're competing with behavioral/molecular people for real research money (as opposed to competing with humanities peeps). Getting external funding can be a little harder unless you have a pretty concrete hypothesis and a good supervisor.

Research + Career + minimal effort : research +career, and minimal effort = fail.

Repeating what others have said; get internships or volunteer experience in psych labs that investigate sexuality and see if you still want to pursue this thing. Lot of undergrad "jobs" are scut work - but you get to see the bigger picture and work with grad students who are in the position that you want to be in.

In Canada, hard science graduate stipends (CIHR rates) pay about $17.8k a year. In Vancouver, that's basically rent for a year - in other places, that might be a living wage. Scholarships are about $25k, *good* scholarships are $30k. If you can finess a national scholarship and a regional one, grad studies might not catch on and you might be able to get two 25ks for an untaxed 50k. Happened to someone down the hall from me, but definitely not common and COMPLETELY non-ethical and grounds for losing both grants.

Working in NIH? BA/BS sure. You aren't gonna be paid very much and while you might make your way up the pay-grade... there's that ceiling that you'll hit without a MSc or a PhD.

A decade ago, with only a BA I was making $35k cdn, then offered $45k usd to move to Boston. A newly minted PhD (not even a North American PhD - this was a German one) was paid $80k+ cdn. Rumour was that he was offered 100+ to move to Boston. That was about a decade ago. A post-doc in our lab took a $60+ as a teacher/researcher at a small lib arts college a couple of years ago because she couldn't find anything else, and bragged that the she was the highest paid teacher at that school.

To work with NIH... are you ok with doing scut work or do you want to have *some* say on what you're working on and what your research means? It's gonna take a PhD unless you're ok with being a waterboy.

Median household income is around $50/60k now... You're gonna have to go through a *lot* of years of being POOR. It isn't a sure bet that you'll make it through school, nor getting a job *if* you make it through.

Grad school is going to be a shitton of work. Is it worth it?
posted by porpoise at 1:56 AM on October 16, 2010


Getting a PhD is pretty good in years 1-3, then years 3-6 turn into a nightmare of soul crushing suckiness you could never have imagined. Obviously, it's a very individual and personal experience (which is part of the problem, in my opinion), and in my case, doing an PhD undermined my self-esteem severely and nearly ruined my enjoyment of science. However, I did make it through in the end and now I hold a fantastic research position I adore. I'm 33 years old and last year was the first time in my life that I made more than 30K a year (and I still have about 20K in debt from my undergrad days).
My advice to you is to work for at least a year after college, ideally as a tech in a research lab and try to get a sense of what it really entails and if it's worth really something for you. Also, it's pretty darn nice to make a decent salary from working only 40 hours a week for a year or two before you start a PhD. For some people it is worth it, and I must say, now that I'm on the other side of it, I'm quite happy, even thought it nearly destroyed me in the process.
posted by emd3737 at 2:59 AM on October 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


Oh pshaw, so much gloom. I've written this before on MeFi, but what the heck.

The years I spent getting a PhD were, bar none, the most fun years of my life. I got a job before I even started the dissertation. 16 years later I am tenured and producing lots of PhD advisees, almost all of whom are getting good jobs right out of grad school.

Oh, and I *own* my own time and agenda at 46, which none of my friends who went into law or business (working for someone else) can really say. I wake up in the morning and say "I want to work on this now," and pretty much that's what I can do. Teaching is a sheer joy. My research is my passion in life. Being around bright young people all the time keeps me alive and growing.

In a humanities field. Yeah, the ones you hear so much gloom and doom about.

Yes to full funding, yes to only do it if it's what you really want to do, yes to it's really hard.

But it is just as reasonable a career path as business or law or medicine, as long as you are smart enough, creative enough, and work hard enough.
posted by fourcheesemac at 3:37 AM on October 16, 2010 [7 favorites]


You should only get one if you are fully funded (that is, if the place you're getting your PhD will pay your tuition for you and will pay your a living stipend on top of that). So you'll want to have a good application - good GPA, good letters of reference, good research experience, this depends on the field so ask your professors in psych about what you should be doing.

Read that paragraph again and again until it's imprinted on your brain. Actually, you can focus on the important bit: You should only get one if you are fully funded (that is, if the place you're getting your PhD will pay your tuition for you and will pay your a living stipend on top of that). Do not go down this road if you're having to take out student loans to pay for it.
posted by Alt F4 at 3:57 AM on October 16, 2010


Don't go to graduate school. Really. Don't. The structure of the academy is fundamentally broken in favor of tenured faculty and administrators, and it's going to take at least a few decades to turn things around.

fourcheesemac isn't so much an exception to the rule as much as part of the problem, i.e. someone who finished his degree over a decade ago and is now tenured. Don't get me wrong: being a tenured professor is probably one of the most awesome jobs int he world. But these days there are dozens of applicants for every position, and most positions aren't even tenure track. The vast majority of current graduate students will never get tenure, and the numbers aren't improving.

If you have to go into debt to get a Ph.D., you're screwed six ways from Sunday. I hope you like cobbling together part-time jobs to try to average out to minimum wage.
posted by valkyryn at 4:57 AM on October 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


Be very careful about some of the advice in this thread. FWIW, here's my now-usual grad student advice:

1- Do not go into debt for a doctorate.
2- Do not do any course of study if you are not fascinated by it. If you're doing it to raise earnings you're in the wrong field already.
3- Being sure you want a research career at 20 is perfectly valid. I knew at 13, my partner at 9.
4- Consider leaving the US (if you're there) for a doctorate in a country that doesn't treat you as teaching support for three years. Funding can be hard, but those TA years are your best.
5- You will need to make personal sacrifices later if you stay on. Research degrees are addictive and the career is a temptation. Many academics are arseholes. Moving hemispheres to chase a job is normal. Being poor - genuinely poor - until your mid 30s is not uncommon, unless you have family wealth. Childlessness is also not unusual; 1 US doctorate plus 3 year postdoctoral position puts you over 30 usually, and that can be too late for some.
posted by cromagnon at 5:13 AM on October 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


i'm starting my 4th year of a phd in the social sciences, very close to your areas of interest. i am finding what emd3737 very true: "Getting a PhD is pretty good in years 1-3, then years 3-6 turn into a nightmare of soul crushing suckiness you could never have imagined."

the job market is saturated with brilliant, amazing researchers. it's staggering how many PhDs (in our area) are underemployed. my friends and i are engaged in soul-crushing job searches. don't get me wrong -- i have liked my phd! i made some amazing friends who mean the world to me, learned so much, and feel i am a better person for it. i believe i am making a valuable contribution to my field. it's really rewarding in some ways.

i strongly agree with all the "DO NOT go into debt for a phd." also, it is seriously great to hear academic success stories among the rest of us cynics, but fourcheesemac is truly an exception, and the academic job market is very different these days. i know many talented, innovative, future-leader-in-their-field-types who simply cannot find a job, or who looked for many months/years before finding one -- because there are so few.

were i to do it all again -- i would end at the MA. for the sort of things i want to do, an MA would have been plenty. heck, i would have done TWO of them! feel free to message me if you have any other questions :)
posted by crawfo at 6:04 AM on October 16, 2010


But it is just as reasonable a career path as business or law or medicine, as long as you are smart enough, creative enough, and work hard enough.

This is what draws you in. Nine out of ten people urge extreme caution, but then you hear "if you're smart and you work hard, you'll be successful." You think, I love learning, I did so well in undergrad, I can be dedicated to my work. Unfortunately, research is a different beast entirely. Those things are required of course, but you still have to deal with the pressure to get your experiments to work, producing results now for the grant renewal, seeking guidance from a withdrawn advisor, working seven days a week, having the last three years of your work scooped, watching all those people from undergrad who didn't love learning or work so hard build successful careers, spending 6-9 years not saving any money for a house/retirement, etc.

Loving research, and seeing it as your only career option, is not necessarily enough. Think long and hard before you decide to enter grad school.
posted by Durin's Bane at 6:07 AM on October 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm a first year doc student in psychology. I can't speak for what's it's like to finish but I do have a good view of the more seasoned student's attitudes. Maybe my school is a unique, but all 50 of us have a really positive attitude and thoroughly enjoy what we do. If you were to ask any student in my department about a PhD they would say without hesitation, "It was the hardest thing I've ever worked towards in my life, but it is totally worth it."

I guess I'm suggesting that it's not all doom and gloom. I see people get tired of jumping through hoops, but they know that going in.

And don't let people tell you that you can't possibly know that you want to be a researcher. In your mind right now, you want to be a researcher. It may change over time or it may stay the same, either way, pursue things in your life that achieve your goals.

Thirding: Research experience, GPA, GRE scores, letters of rec, picking the right school/professors
Adding: Learn to be versatile in getting along with all types of people
posted by WhiteWhale at 6:29 AM on October 16, 2010


I'm not going to be dismissive of your age or intensity. I knew early in college that I LOVE research and I spent the rest of my time in college finding a field where I had enough interest to keep me going. I just finished my PhD and am doing a postdoc in a non-academic research organization. I still LOVE research and I'm incredibly lucky to like my job. I loved grad school, too (not every second of it, of course, but it was a good place for me).

Depending on your field, there are people with bachelor's and master's degrees who work as research assistants in labs headed by PIs (in industry, government, unis, etc.) If you like being part of a research team, this is a perfectly viable route to doing research. You probably won't have much autonomy and may hit a ceiling on advancement without a PhD, but you can always go back to school later for that.

My biggest concern for you is that you'll pick a field where the only directly relevant job options are academic. DEFINITELY don't go to grad school in such a field if you already aren't attracted to academic jobs. Grad school typically does NOT increase anyone's interest in academic jobs, it usually acts to extinguish such ambitions.
posted by parkerjackson at 6:37 AM on October 16, 2010


fourcheesemac isn't so much an exception to the rule as much as part of the problem, i.e. someone who finished his degree over a decade ago and is now tenured.

Ninety percent of my advisees have found tenure track work within 2 years of finishing. I submit that you don't know what you're talking about. It depends on the field, the program, the student, and the economic climate.

But fine, don't go to grad school. Go to law school. I hear it's a great gig.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:10 AM on October 16, 2010


Oh, by the way, the number of available tenure track jobs in my field, which declined fairly sharply over the last two years (but was still not bad, and 4 of my advisees were placed in the last 2 years), has shot up this year. We're looking at an actual bull market for tenure track jobs in my subdiscipline.

Conventional wisdom is good for scaring off those who don't have what it takes. I suppose I should be all scary so there's more work to go around for my students. But very few of them are having a serious problem finding work.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:12 AM on October 16, 2010


There are secondary concerns. Do you want to have kids? Having a kid in academia is no easy feat. Also debt isn't just paying tuition. It is not paying into a 401k for your grad years and then possibly paying off debt and having low paying positions for years, making your early 20s NOT your best time to save.

I'd imagine working one's way up could get you to an earning level you'd be comfortable financially.

In my own PhD experience, my cohort was 1/2 straight-out-of-undergrad and 1/2 late 20s, coming back. Some of the straight-outs had a bit of a crisis, second guessing themselves.

It is easy to get stuck too - you get through the first year, then the thesis, then the exams...

Overall, I'd recommend not going. If you'd like to chat, let me know. I'm a social scientist.
posted by k8t at 7:14 AM on October 16, 2010


But these days there are dozens of applicants for every position, and most positions aren't even tenure track. The vast majority of current graduate students will never get tenure, and the numbers aren't improving.

This is true and not-true, all at the same time. And it's a lot more fine-grained than the aggregate numbers would suggest -- there are fields in which you are totally hosed, and fields in which there are lots of jobs.

A lot hinges on what kind of future job applicant are you going to be? I sat on one job search while in grad school, and have watched numerous ones since then. Yes, there are dozens and dozens of applicants -- but a large proportion of them are only marginally qualified and are clearly not prepared for either the job search or the job itself. The first cut is easy; the brutal competition comes if you can make it into the short list. What's clear, looking at applications, is that many, or maybe even most, grad students are being very poorly prepared and supported for the job market. For every awesome adviser like fourcheesemac whose students are super-prepared and kicking ass on the job market, there are a dozen who don't seem to mind watching their students flounder.

In the field I work in you can get a job with a BA but if you want a good job, or to have a chance at advancing and autonomy, you need at least a masters. And if you want to direct and control the research, rather than being a worker on someone else's project, you need the doctorate.
posted by Forktine at 7:17 AM on October 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


Here's the actual numbers:

13 PhD advisees have finished under my supervision in 15 years at my current university.

10 have tenure track jobs or postdocs that are likely to lead to tenure track jobs.

3 were hired before finishing the PhD.

All but two have had at least one (and usually more) major research grants.

All have published.

Plus our program put out perhaps 7 more over that period, of whom at least 5 are working at TA jobs.

This is a somewhat social scientific branch of a humanities field, housed in a humanities department. Yes, a top 10 program, every student full funded, all that.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:17 AM on October 16, 2010


TT jobs, not TA, sorry.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:18 AM on October 16, 2010


We're looking at an actual bull market for tenure track jobs in my subdiscipline.


This is true in my field as well. Last year wasn't great (but wasn't the blow-out that some fields suffered) and this year both the academic and non-academic job market is booming. You can't predict this five years ahead, but it is really important to look beyond the aggregate numbers.
posted by Forktine at 7:20 AM on October 16, 2010


The naysayers on this thread are correct that getting a tenure-track job is a high mountain gettting higher. But please keep in mind that the OP has explicitly said that he/she doesn't want a career in academia! So the question is: is it a good idea to get a Ph.D. if you're not aiming for an academic career? In many fields, the answer is no, but in psychology, it might be yes. I know lots of young Ph.D.s in psychology. All of them have good professional research jobs. None of them is on a tenure-track. (But note that most of these are in clinical and can thus see patients as well as do research.)
posted by escabeche at 7:22 AM on October 16, 2010


Also, for what is worth I heard the same gloomy forecasts back in the early 90s when I was in grad school, and the job market was much worse in my field back then.

Smart to pick a growing field for sure.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:25 AM on October 16, 2010


the OP has explicitly said that he/she doesn't want a career in academia!

He/she actually said something a bit different, that they didn't want to be an academic forever. My guess is that they don't have a very clear idea of what being an academic is, and what might differentiate being a researcher in a big government lab and being a professor. A lot of the jobs overlap -- you write grants, stay up to date on research, write articles and maybe books, go to conferences, do your research, supervise staff. I know people who work in non-academic positions who occasionally take on and supervise grad student research, too. Really, these are positions with more in common than not.

And there are a lot of overlaps on the job markets, including that in both cases you will need to be geographically flexible, you'll be judged on your writing and research presentations, etc.

The point being, I think that the OP needs to go and visit (and ideally spend some time working with) some academic and non-academic researchers in this field, and see what the realities of the work are really like. Grad school isn't a ton of fun but it's hardly non-stop misery, either; the question is really whether the end result is going to be worth it, and none of us can answer that for him/her.
posted by Forktine at 7:34 AM on October 16, 2010


What's it like?

Totally flexible but 24/7 work. Constant pressure. Anxiety. Socialization.
posted by k8t at 8:09 AM on October 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


I would like to add that this comment

You're barely in your 20s, so you don't actually know this, no matter how convinced you are right now.


is arrogant and extremely condescending. OP, please disregard it.

Many people do enjoy their Ph.D. work. It is a chance to focus on what you are most interested in. I have no personal experience as I only have a BA, but I do have several friends in grad school. There is a lot of pressure and high expectations, certainly, but if you enjoy research I believe you might enjoy a Ph.D. (though you do usually have to teach as part of the degree requirements).

I agree with what has been said about getting a more specific idea of what kind of job you want and what the work would actually be like post-Ph.D, and look at the prospects for those particular jobs.
posted by Lobster Garden at 8:55 AM on October 16, 2010


Getting a PhD is pretty good in years 1-3, then years 3-6 turn into a nightmare of soul crushing suckiness you could never have imagined. Obviously, it's a very individual and personal experience.

Yup, mine was the opposite - year 1 was pretty much the worst year of my life so far, but after that it'd been a lot of fun. If you do decide to go for it, I'll tell you this: the single factor that decides whether you're happy or miserable in grad school is your advisor. Pick oh-so-carefully. The exact details of what he or she does is so much less important than finding someone who's considerate, actually cares about you as a person, and whose working style meshes well with yours. If you can't communicate with your advisor, grad school is going to be hell.
posted by you're a kitty! at 9:27 AM on October 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


The general advice is: You should only get a PhD if it is a requirement for a job you want. You shouldn't get one just because you like studying, or like being in school, or want to get smarter in a kind of generalized way, or because it's prestigious and you're not sure what to do next.

I was going to say something to that effect.

Since you're interested in the social sciences (and not the humanities) I would not necessarily discourage you. What I would suggest, based on my (humanities Ph.D.) experience, is that IF you decide to go into a doctoral program, you do two things:

1. Go in with your eyes wide open to the economic consequences of your choice. Treat this as career training. Go to your school's career center and research the kinds of jobs you think you want to prepare for. What is the market like for those jobs? How much do they pay? What kind of background do they require, in addition to the Ph.D.? Are they the kind of thing where you can live where you want and switch jobs more or less at will, or do you have to go where the job is (even if you don't like the area) and stick with it for ten, twenty, thirty years? Find out how long it takes people to complete a Ph.D. in your (sub)field and run some numbers--at what age could you afford to buy a home? How would your retirement savings be affected by starting your accounts that much later in life? You should ALSO research alternative career tracks that don't require a Ph.D. Don't make the mistake of getting so focused on Ph.D.-track jobs that you might overlook other careers that would exercise your skills, put you into good work environments, and feel rewarding. Even if you still decide to go forward with the Ph.D., it's good to know what your other options are, and you might want to network with people in those other jobs.

2. Make a firm pact with yourself to keep an open mind about your career track after starting grad school, and re-evaluate continually. You might even want to schedule a twice-annual reminder to think about these things. If grad school goes well and you end up with a Ph.D. and your dream job, great. Don't let me or any other internet stranger stop you! But you don't want to get locked into the Ph.D. track just because it's what you chose at the outset. People's priorities often change during their twenties; they meet someone they want to marry, they decide to have kids, they decide they really need to move back closer to their aging parents, or they just generally learn more about themselves and what they need to be happy. So check in with yourself every so often and re-evaluate whether continuing in grad school is the best way to meet your goals and make yourself happy. I think it's common to feel that if you drop out of grad school it's a personal failure and you've wasted the time and resources that you spent on the first year, or three years, or five years. But really, unless there's a compelling reason to finish the degree before switching direction, it's better and smarter to get out quickly and cleanly and get on with your life.
posted by Orinda at 11:32 AM on October 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


p.s. I don't mean to imply that any of this:

they meet someone they want to marry, they decide to have kids, they decide they really need to move back closer to their aging parents, or they just generally learn more about themselves and what they need to be happy

. . . is necessarily incompatible with getting a Ph.D. It's just that you may have some big life choices ahead, and the typical doctoral-training scenario where you commit to spending several years in the same place, working on the same thing, with the same small group of people and earning the same paltry income, might not give you a lot of flexibility to respond to those life changes. Then again, some people meet their spouse in grad school, find the flexibility of academic hours very compatible with child-rearing, prefer the stability of grad school enrollment over the uncertainty of a job where they could be laid off every time there's a hiccup in the economy, etc. I just mean to say, keep an eye on what's important to YOU, be prepared for the fact that it may change over time, and keep an open mind about whether your graduate program is the best way to accomplish what you want.
posted by Orinda at 11:41 AM on October 16, 2010


A lot of people who are most miserable in graduate school, and least successful once they finish, are, frankly, ill-suited for it to begin.

Research and grad school are hard, and competitive. People who enjoy graduate school, finish their PhDs on time, and get a good result on the job market are type A personalities: great ambition, tremendous work ethic, and a scary degree of intensity. Sometimes they're the debate-team-champion version of those character traits rather than the football-quarterback version, but same difference. To put it more concretely, I can't think of one tenure-track faculty member I know who wouldn't be killing it on Wall Street had they gone that way.

For whatever reason, a lot of people simply don't get this. Graduate schools fill up somehow with Type B personalities -- people who, however nice or smart they may be, are simply soft -- their ambition to get a job and career that is somehow more pleant than what they see out there in the corporate world. They get chewed up.
posted by MattD at 12:05 PM on October 16, 2010 [6 favorites]


I'm in the middle of a PhD. I found this PhD in pictures very helpful.
posted by aunt_winnifred at 12:23 PM on October 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


Really the only career I'm really passionate about is a career in research.

This is a case where you probably should get a Ph.D. I love research, too, and I'm (mostly) glad that I do what I do. The important thing is to start doing some undergraduate research right now. Start working with/for a professor during the term and then extend that over the summer, full-time.

I know a lot of people on MeFi (even me) will tell people "snap out of it! don't get a Ph.D.!" but in some cases, for some people, with some mindsets and certain career goals, it is a good idea with a realistic chance of career success.
posted by deanc at 1:06 PM on October 16, 2010


I am wondering if it is possible for me to work as a researcher for the NIH or someone like that with just a BA or a BS (I have a feeling no)

Sure, if you're ok being a lab tech: it's not such a bad job, and there's research involved, but: it's a lot like being in graduate school, so you may as well do that, instead. Plus, there's no upward mobility. And the pay is not that great. You could try out doing research at the NIH for a year or 2 with a B.S. to see if you like it, but I wouldn't make a full time career out of it unless you had a Ph.D.
posted by deanc at 1:16 PM on October 16, 2010


All I have is an anecdote. I enjoyed my PhD research, for the most part. There were times that were among the most fun I have ever had. There were times that sucked the big one. About six months before the end was the worst - there was no light at the end of the tunnel and I was burned out.

I haven't managed to put together an academic career yet (it's now three years after submission), but part of that is because of locational restrictions due to family issues. I have done adjuncting, and RA and TA work, and part time short term contracts. I have lived on barely enough to pay the rent. I have hated myself and my life (but the drugs helped with that ;) ). I still want to do research more than I want anything else, and I would do the PhD again if I had to.

But I love research pretty generically. As long as I am solving problems and reading and writing, I am happy. If I had got into it because of specific research questions or areas that interested me, and only those areas, I would be miserable now. During the PhD my research had to take directions that were determined at least partly by my supervisor, and by what is new and fashionable in the field. Post-PhD my research topics are determined entirely by what people are willing to pay me to do, and have nothing to do with what I would choose if left to my own devices. Even if I get a tenure-track job, chances are I will not have complete freedom to choose my research directions as they will be governed by what grant agencies are willing to fund, and what areas need to be supervised at my university.
posted by lollusc at 7:50 PM on October 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


"You're barely in your 20s, so you don't actually know this, no matter how convinced you are right now." is arrogant and extremely condescending. OP, please disregard it.?

Oh, please. It's the truth! Someone who has likely lived in one or two places and only been a student doesn't even really know how many choices there are or how many kinds of things he or she might like to do or which of those things he or she is best suited for. I really do not believe that someone who hasn't finished a B.A. (or even just a young person who's just cracked the 20s) really can say with that much certitude that there is but one thing they will ever find compelling.
posted by liketitanic at 9:13 PM on October 16, 2010


I'm a grad student now and am pretty ambivalent about it. Being poor is socially acceptable when you're 23 but much less so when you're 27. And I get to see my family only very rarely, which really hurts. I'm in computer science though which has good non-academic career prospects -- otherwise I probably would have quit a long time ago.
posted by miyabo at 9:26 PM on October 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Oh, please. It's the truth! Someone who has likely lived in one or two places and only been a student doesn't even really know how many choices there are or how many kinds of things he or she might like to do or which of those things he or she is best suited for. I really do not believe that someone who hasn't finished a B.A. (or even just a young person who's just cracked the 20s) really can say with that much certitude that there is but one thing they will ever find compelling.

That's true, but it's also true of everyone who chooses to do anything in your life. I knew of some things that I found very compelling as an 18-20something. And now that I'm older, I'm aware of even more things I find compelling. But the important thing was that I picked one of the few/only things I found compelling when I was young and pursued that. If I waited until I was in my late 20s/early 30s to pick that one thing, some opportunities would have been lost and some would have been impractical, and for those things that wouldn't have made much of difference, at least I had something to show for the intervening years.

To a degree, what you're saying is true: tweedle will find other things compelling, but that statement is a total non-sequitur. The most compelling thing he finds now the desire to do research, so he should do that while he still has the energy and passion.
posted by deanc at 1:58 PM on October 17, 2010


Ninety percent of my advisees have found tenure track work within 2 years of finishing. I submit that you don't know what you're talking about.

You've admitted you're in a top-10 school. Things are always different at the top. For the rest of us mortals, the picture is far closer to what I've described than to the world you live in.
posted by valkyryn at 5:47 PM on October 18, 2010 [1 favorite]



You've admitted you're in a top-10 school. Things are always different at the top. For the rest of us mortals, the picture is far closer to what I've described than to the world you live in.


This is why the advice about doctoral programs always emphasizes going to a top program. Seriously, if you aren't in a well-regarded program (or at a lesser place, but working with a star professor who has a stellar reputation), you shouldn't be there if you have aspirations of a top-flight academic career. If you want to teach as an adjunct, or to be a prof at a third-tier regional college, by all means go to the lower-ranked grad program. (And everyone knows someone who breaks this model, who went to a crappy program, worked with a shitty adviser, and now teaches at Harvard. If that's the gamble you want to take, more power to you, but your chances aren't good.)

Seriously, I think that this underlies a huge part of the academic job tribulations one reads about all the time. Everyone I know who a) went to a top program and b) did kick-ass work while they were there has a great job (academic or not). The people I know who went to so-so programs, or didn't stand out in a good program, aren't doing well at all.

The key to remember is that for graduate work there aren't top schools; there are only top departments. So where you go for urban archeology is not necessarily where you go for marine biology, and neither may be the right place for communication theory. Particularly when you parse a discipline down to sub-fields, you need to be very careful about where you do or do not go.

In a lot of ways it's a crappy Ponzi scheme and one is better off not being involved. But if you are going to do it, you have to do it the right way, or just not bother.
posted by Forktine at 8:53 PM on October 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


The key to remember is that for graduate work there aren't top schools; there are only top departments.

This! You need to talk to professors in your department (or in the department closest to where you want to be) to find out where this is. Sometimes the best programs are at a school you wouldn't expect, and conversely just because your program is at Fancy Big Name School doesn't mean it's the best from a research perspective.
posted by heyforfour at 7:36 AM on January 20, 2011


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